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Beer of the Week: Green Flash Imperial IPA, Plus Tasting Notes From Green Flash Brewery in San Diego

A few weeks ago at dusk standing amongst the seals sprawled out on in the La Jolla Cove sand, I could’ve sworn I finally saw the elusive green flash emerge from the sea as the sun set into the Pacific horizon.

Or, it could’ve been because of an earlier extensive beer tasting of two dozen beers served on draught at Green Flash’s tap room inside their San Diego brewery not far from an assortment of other breweries (AleSmith, Ballast Point…) just north of the Miramar Naval Air Station.

"Research" at Green Flash

“Research” at Green Flash

It’s hard to say who is necessarily the most “famous” or “highly-regarded” of the over three dozen nano and micro breweries across San Diego County. You’re dealing with worldwide heavy-hitters ranging from Stone to Ballast Point to AleSmith to the more obscure, but critically adored IPA pioneering Alpine.

Green Flash is right up there at the top. If 20 plus beers sampled tells you anything, they certainly know how to diversify. Yet like what your Merril Lynch adviser would tell you, it’s good to have variety, but you still must maintain a high level of quality. From a Double Stout powered by a hefty amount of Serrano chile to world class Double IPAs and Imperial IPAs, there is no doubting Green Flash’s prominence as one of the most accomplished craft breweries in the country, not just the county.

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Beer drinkers everywhere know the Green Flash West Coast IPA by heart. Now, it’s time to start getting to know the Imperial IPA, the commanding King compared to the Prine Charming. Before getting studious with the Imperial IPA, let’s first look back at some Green Flash history. In 2002, Mike and Lisa Hankley started the brewery, then were joined by brewmaster Chuck Silva two years later. It’s been an extremely successful decade after since Chuck and the Hankleys joined together to create a powerhouse craft brewery in San Diego.

Hop-forward, floral, slightly edgy, still relaxed at their core style beers are the hallmark of Silva’s work with Green Flash.

Obviously, the best known beer at Green Flash is the West Coast IPA, pioneering an entire genre of more controlled IPAs in the “West Coast” style. The Pacific Northwest is in theory the West Coast, but its grand, striking style is much dryer and bitter than the path Green Flash takes. The West Coast IPA is a typical 7.3% ABV, but holds back a bit on the IBUs at 95.  The various layer of an assortment of hops used provide exciting dimensions to each sip, often very forward with lemon zest, sage, and blood orange.

However, it’s the Imperial IPA that controls the royal court of Green Flash brews. It’s also known as a San Diego IPA, even though it’s bigger personality falls much more in line with the Portland-Seattle area. The alcohol creeps a bit higher (9.4%), while the IBUs are noticeably more influential at 101. But, the balance makes it so you’re not begging for water after every sip.

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The Imperial IPA is slightly golden- straw colored compared to the bronze West Coast IPA. Green Flash only uses two types of hops, Summit and Nugget, for a very distinct and focused narrative, instead of the more famous version’s myriad dimensions. Flavors are bright, with pine abundant amidst outstanding citrus elements. Regal with extraordinary leadership and profound depth, this is a masterwork of strong IPA artistry.

While the Imperial IPA was one of only two beers on an entire San Diego beer blitz week (Ballast Point Indra Kunindra being the other) to receive the very rare honor of a perfect maximum score from our tasting panel, several Green Flash beers came close.

I was absolutely blown away by Green Flash’s Double Stout with Serrano chiles, exhibiting a meticulous balance of buzzing spice to bold dark chocolate, something to stand back and applaud. The regular Double Stout Black Ale is just as special even without the spice, handsome at just the right thick texture, while still possessing levity. Chai, raisins, and chocolate ganache all filter behind the distinct cacao nose. This is everything Guinness dreams of being.

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Green Flash doesn’t just stop its hop-forward beers with the flagship West Coast IPA and the Imperial IPA. The Hop Head Red Ale could use a rounder finish, but boasts plenty of exciting hop elements amidst the more malty backbone. The Belgian Red Rye is right on par with the Hop Head Red, showcasing more herbal initial aromas and tastes, similar to caraway. The Le Freak Belgian Tripel meets IPA is, well, a bit freaky and absurd, displaying pleasant attributes from both contrasting styles, but in the end lacking a definitive clear viewpoint. In the end, it’s much more wards the Tripel side.

I didn’t care so much for the Surf’s Up 8th Anniversary IPA, where the dry hopped notes seemed almost toasted causing an unpleasant burnt sensation. Hop Odyssey Black IPA and the Green Bullet 9th Anniversary IPA didn’t captivate the crowd either. However, the stronger ales followed suit behind the Imperial IPA. Beautiful creations in the borderline obscenely hop-forward Palate Wrecker Double IPA (the name absolutely hits the spot), the First Anniversary American Strong Ale, and the Fifth Anniversary Double IPA show that Green Flash’s small batch brews show tremendous care and creativity, without veering off into mad scientist experiments. You can tell they were carefully constructed from the ground up.

One experiment brew didn’t quite hit the mark. The Friendship Brew, Green Flash’s second collaboration with Brasserie St-Feuillien in Belgium, is a Black Saison with exciting tamarind and cardamon hints, but the body is very weak, almost as soft as a Berliner Weisse instead of a Saison. I felt the same with a Cedar Plank Cedar Spiral Ale, where the focal points flavored far surpassed the beer itself as a whole. Something faltered in the final presentation. If this were a cedar planked salmon, you’d love the marinade, but the salmon meat was dry.

Heftier brews, such as the Candela Barleywine, the Park West Porter, and the Grand Cru Dark Ale were all exemplary. The Candela displayed all the hallmarks of a pitch-perfect Barleywine, from the toffee open to the crisp, refined conclusion that didn’t hit the palate with too much fizzled alcohol.

Research concluded. Trust me, others helped. Seriously.

Research concluded. Trust me, others helped. Seriously.

Lighter varieties weren’t terrible, but not ones you’ll leave thinking about. The East Village Pilsner, the Treasure Chest Belgian Blonde, and the 30th Street Pale Ale won’t be anybody’s favorites. The latter Pale Ale cried for more malt. They are faithful beers to the genre, as is the regular Tripel that could use one more dimension of fruit or spice to make it stand out. At the bottom of the ratings was an exceedingly dry Retro XPA that seemed as if too many hops were left out of the process. In such a dynamic portfolio, the XPA is a very vague afterthought. That was the one real misfire. Not bad for this size of work with so many rousing successes.

When it comes down to IPAs, Green Flash is one of the industry leaders. Don’t forget about their work with Stouts, Porters, and Belgian styles. Well, in that case, just always be on the lookout for what they have up their sleeve next. Of all the impressive brews, the one you want at sunset is His Majesty, the Imperial IPA.

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